Two Minute Read, WWII

The Blind Pilot – Flying Officer Gordon Cleaver

Flying Officer Gordon Stanley Cleaver was more than just a pilot; he was a pivotal figure in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during the tumultuous years of the Second World War.

As a part of No. 601 Squadron, colloquially known as the “Millionaires’ Squadron,” Cleaver rubbed shoulders with some of the wealthiest individuals in British society.

The Millionaire's Squadron emblem.
The Millionaire’s Squadron emblem.

Cleaver and his squadron were deployed to Merville, France, on May 16, 1940. Just two days later, on May 18, Cleaver, in conjunction with Flight Lieutenant Archibald Hope, successfully downed a Do-17 from the 2/KG 76 west of Mons. The crew of the German aircraft was subsequently captured.

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On May 19, Cleaver’s Hurricane was struck by debris from a He-111 during an aerial battle over Douai, forcing him to make an emergency landing near Lille. After this incident, the 601 Squadron was reassigned back to the UK.

Upon returning, Cleaver’s aerial victories continued. On May 27, he claimed the destruction of two Bf 110s over Dunkirk. Then on July 11, Cleaver reported a Ju-87 destroyed and a He-111 as a ‘probable’ hit. He further claimed the destruction of a Bf 109 on July 26.

The Bf-110 was no match for the likes of a Spitfire or P-51.
Cleaver took out four Bf 110s in a short period of time. Photo credit – Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-377-2801-013 Jakobsen [Jacobsen] CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Cleaver’s success in the air persisted into August, with a Bf 109 and a Bf 110 both listed as probable hits on the 11th, followed by a Bf 110 possibly destroyed on August 13. Through all these engagements, Flying Officer Gordon Cleaver’s courage and skill in aerial combat shone through.

Yet, it was not his elite social status that sealed his place in history, but rather a pivotal incident that sparked a medical revolution.

On August 15, 1940, during the infamous Battle of Britain, Cleaver found himself in the cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane, caught in the frenzy of war.

His plane was hit by retaliatory fire from a German bomber, causing shrapnel from an exploding cannon shell to infiltrate his cockpit.

Tragically, shards of Perspex – the material forming the aircraft’s windscreen – were driven into his eyes.

In spite of the severe injuries, Cleaver exhibited extraordinary courage.

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He managed to bail out from the stricken aircraft, only to be discovered unconscious by a roadside later.

Cleaver had to try and bail out of the Hurricane's cockpit whilst being shot at an injuried would have been a terrifying ordeal. Photo credit - Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Trying to bail out of the Hurricane’s cockpit whilst being shot at and injured would have been a terrifying ordeal. Photo credit – Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

The grievous wounds inflicted that day resulted in Cleaver losing his sight in one eye, with significant impairment in the other.

This tragedy put an abrupt halt to his career as a fighter pilot. Yet, it was the nature of his injuries that led to a ground-breaking medical discovery.

After the incident, Cleaver’s medical case came to the attention of Harold Ridley, a consultant ophthalmic surgeon.

Ridley made an intriguing observation – the Perspex shards embedded in Cleaver’s eyes did not instigate any allergic or rejection response.

This insight sowed the seeds of an idea that led to the development of the intraocular lens implant. First used in cataract surgery in 1949, this revolutionary technique has since restored the sight of millions across the globe.

In the surgery, the cloudy natural lens is removed and replaced with a clear artificial lens, known as an intraocular lens.

The intraocular lens is made from a clear, biocompatible material, often a type of acrylic or silicone, and can be tailored to the patient’s individual needs, potentially also correcting for nearsightedness or farsightedness.

The procedure is usually performed on an outpatient basis under local anaesthesia, and it has a high success rate. Most people can return to their normal activities within a few days and notice a significant improvement in their vision.

The development and improvement of intraocular lenses over the years have revolutionised the treatment of cataracts and have restored sight to millions of people worldwide.

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While Flying Officer Gordon Stanley Cleaver’s RAF career may have been tragically cut short, his legacy soars high in the form of a medical breakthrough that continues to change lives.

His story underscores the interweaving of history and progress, affirming that even in the face of personal tragedy, the potential for wider human advancement persists.

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